Biennial Fairs Books United Kingdom

Birth of the super curator

A study of influential exhibitions since the 60s includes many gems from the archives

"Documenta 5", 1972: Joseph Beuys, left, strikes a blow for direct democracy in Boxkampf für direkte Demokratie

It is a measure of the growing interest in the history of exhibitions that a key event at this year’s Venice Biennale is the reconstruction of the late Swiss curator Harald Szeemann’s radical and hugely influential exhibition “Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form” by the curator Germano Celant, the artist Thomas Demand and the architect Rem Koolhaas. Originally staged at the Kunsthalle Bern in 1969, Szeemann’s show of Conceptual, Minimal and Post-Minimal art is one of the linchpins of Biennials and Beyond, the second volume of Bruce Altshuler’s timely and ambitious effort to define the seminal exhibitions of the past 150 years.

In the first volume, Salon to Biennial, Altshuler analysed 24 exhibitions, from the Salon des Refusés in Paris in 1863 to “The New American Painting” show organised by New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1959. While artist-led shows dominate that volume, this follow-up title reflects the growing power of the curator and the effects of “professional exhibition makers” on the showing of art in the late 20th and 21st centuries.

Altshuler, the director of New York University’s museum studies programme, focuses on group exhibitions rather than solo shows. His selections are not based upon whether they were critically acclaimed or phenomenally popular in their time, but instead according to their “resonance with current views of what is historically important”. Each is brilliantly evoked through documentary snapshots, installation views, invitation cards and posters as well as catalogue texts and reviews—favourable or excoriating.

Altshuler’s choices are astute. Two London exhibitions make the list: the Royal Academy of Arts 1981 show “A New Spirit in Painting”, which heralded the vigorous return to painting in Europe and America at the time; and “Freeze”, Damien Hirst’s 1988 exhibition of his fellow Goldsmiths College students, which set the benchmark for the self-curated, entrepreneurial exhibitions that launched the Young British Artists phenomenon. He chooses not to focus on “Sensation”, the show of Charles Saatchi’s collection at the Royal Academy in 1997, as it had little effect on subsequent art or exhibition-making—especially internationally—despite the controversy it caused. Instead, he says, “Traffic” at the CAPC Musée d’Art Contemporain de Bordeaux in 1996 defines “the central art of the 1990s”. Its curator, Nicolas Bourriaud, introduced the term “relational aesthetics” to describe a burgeoning socially minded and interactive art by the likes of Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno, which still resonates today.

Bourriaud and “Traffic” were the product of a distinct shift in exhibition making documented in the book: the growth of the “largescale [sic] thematic exhibition” and “the rise of a cadre of experts who would assemble them”. Chief among them was Szeemann, described here as “the most important curator of the post-war period”. Altshuler emphasises Szeemann’s background in the theatre, and suggests that he approached exhibitions like a theatre director or cinematic auteur, treating curatorship as “a creative pursuit” in which he would act “as inspired partner of the artist”. It was Szeemann who set the blueprint for today’s powerful independent and itinerant curators travelling from city to city assembling exhibitions.

Altshuler and his editors have gained access to archival material on shows by Szeemann and his ilk that is normally reserved for fellow curators—and presented it beautifully. The material on Szeemann’s “Documenta 5” in 1972 not only brings us fascinating colour pictures of its radical and chaotic performances and events (including Joseph Beuys in a boxing match with another artist) but reflects the enduring relevance of debates around these earlier shows.

Although “Documenta 5” ushered in the thematic exhibition in the early 1970s, Altshuler persuasively argues that it reached its apotheosis in later decades, allied to globalisation. Its “primary art world vehicle”, Altshuler argues, was the biennial. It is no coincidence that three of the final five exhibitions discussed here are notable examples of recurring exhibitions: the Whitney Biennial of 1993, the São Paulo Biennial of 1998 and “Documenta 11” from 2002. “Documenta 11” reflects the huge changes in art over the period covered by the book. Produced by the Nigerian-American curator Okwui Enwezor, it was highly political, informed by postcolonial theory and was truly global in its choice of artists. Like the 1997 “Documenta” organised by Catherine David, it also placed talks and discussions on a par with art.

Looking at many exhibitions today, one is inclined to agree with Daniel Buren when he wrote of “Documenta V” that “more and more the subject of an exhibition tends not to be the display of works of art but the exhibition of the exhibition as a work of art”. As this excellent book confirms, it has been a tumultuous era for such events, but at their best they remain a compelling meeting between art, ideas and the public.

Biennials and Beyond: Exhibitions that Made Art History, 1962-2002, Bruce Altshuler, Phaidon, 412pp, $100 (hb)

Biennials and Beyond: Exhibitions that Made Art History, 1962-2002, Bruce Altshuler, Phaidon, 412pp, $100 (hb)
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